The problem is politics, not PR

Recognition of some of Jeremy Corbyn’s shortcomings is a step forward, but competence is not the only problem the leadership has, argues Richard Angell in response to Owen Jones

The video Owen Jones published this week was brave. Many in his position would not have done it. He is right to be concerned that Labour is dying before our very eyes, that an election loss with the two per cent swing against Labour seen in Stoke-on-Trent Central, let alone the 6.2 point swing in Copeland, could be impossible to recover from and that the Tories are getting off scot-free and are on course for a massive win at the next election. How rightwing, anti-migrant and blasé about cutting disabled people’s benefits they are should scare us all. Jones is right to make clear that this is in our hands and happening on our watch.

In my opinion Jones has little need to repent – two summers ago he did what he thought was right and in the best interests of his politics. It is not an apology people are looking for but for Jones to finally get the analysis right. His most recent argument still falls short. Obviously the Labour leader is a terrible communicator and Copeland was a disaster for the party. Jones is right to identify the Stoke-on-Trent Central byelection as arguably a worse result. For every 100 Labour votes in each seat in 2015, there were 69 in Copeland and 64 in Stoke Central in 2017. The Tories had a 96.9 and 73.5 per cent retention respectively.

But the voters of west Cumbria did not pass judgement on Corbyn’s press strategy, performances at prime minister’s questions or lacklustre approach to campaigning. It was not about establishment Westminster bubble concerns – Jones should really know better. It was a judgement on his politics.

The people of west Cumbria were appalled that Corbyn’s lifelong and ‘principled’ position is to scrap their jobs. Emily Thornberry might call this ‘fake news’ but as recently as 2011 he casually called for closure of Sellafield and the like. His desire to abolish civil nuclear power in the United Kingdom would leave their community, and many others across Britain, on the scrap heap. The politics of Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and, yes, Jones too, would see Copeland go the same way Margaret Thatcher let mining communities go across Britain: bereft of work and the dignity that goes with it, with no prospect of it being replaced. Despite what Momentum’s Emma Rees argues there are no roads nor infrastructure projects that could be built that would provide a viable and well-paid alternative.

Jones provides a number of dangerous straw-men in his argument about why the left should ditch Corbyn as part of a deal with Labour members of parliament to put the Norwich South MP or another hard-left candidate on the ballot. He argues that Corbyn’s politics is a leftwing version of motherhood and apple pie: ‘to invest in the economy rather than cut, or introduce a genuine living wage, or return public services and utilities into the hands of the British people, or increase workers’ rights’. This is nonsense. Liz Kendall stood for most of these things, their best chance of being implemented would have been under the then chancellors’ ‘Darling Plan’ and remaining part of the European Union.

No, the people of Copeland know what hard-left politics really is. It is an aversion to the industrial interests of the working class. Whether it is on civil nuclear power, fracking, Trident, defence more generally or security firms like G4S, the current leadership of the Labour party is against it. West Cumbrians were so appalled by the Labour leadership – and its plans for their jobs in the unlikely scenario that they get into power – that they preferred to punish it rather than a Tory government for actually closing their maternity unit and urgent care centre. This is the harsh reality those who supported Corbyn, including Jones, must acknowledge. The idea that someone like Clive Lewis – who wants a ‘progressive coalition’ with the Green party, who also believe this anti-industry nonsense – is the answer is just not true.

The voters last Thursday were not taking a narrow view of their future. The voters in Copeland clearly see their neighbours in the Barrow shipyard as canaries in the mine. Opposing nuclear – weapons rather than power – has been central to the creation of Momentum and Corbyn, even as party leader, has spoken on platforms against Labour policy on the issue. Yes the two issues are interlinked – they know that unilateral disarmament is the step immediately before the abolition of civil nuclear power – therefore they clearly felt they had to make a stand. The left once referred to this as ‘worker solidarity’.

The result was clear from just these issues. This is before the Tories repeat accounts of Corbyn and McDonnell support for the IRA, their reference to Hamas as ‘friends’ and association with the anti-West Stop the War Coalition. Jones’ says ‘Corbyn’s first impression was disastrous’ and he is right – it will be hard to change the introduction he made to British public: refusing to sing the national anthem, snubbing British troops and refusing to protect the public if what happened in Paris were to be repeated here.

Jones is right to say not all of Labour’s problems started with Corbyn. I know of no one in Labour who thinks that the opposite is true, and few come more ‘militant anti-Corbyn’ than I. But the aforementioned reasons for our loss of support in Copeland, are in addition to the problems inherited from Ed Miliband and the last Labour government. Equally, ‘Corbyn’s internal critics’ as Jones points out ‘have remained largely silent, yet Labour’s polling has continued to slide’ so Corbyn’s problems are not Labour MPs fault either.

The ‘dilemma torturing so many who supported Corbyn’ must be personal and real. I do not down play that. However, as Jones points out: ‘consider the stakes’. It is a ‘rightwing Tory government, infused with an increasingly xenophobic and authoritarian brand of populism’. As horrific as that government is, the voters in two Labour-held seat deliver their verdict on both Corbyn and Corbynism.

But the reality is worse than Jones’ analysis suggests. It is the incompetence surrounding the leader that is currently cocooning him from electoral reality. His poor communication strategy and inability to deliver a message for Labour left it unclear in voters minds about whether his longheld view on nuclear or recent support for Moorside were what he actually believed. Had he been between more forceful in his argument he would either have more clearly articulated what is clearly a ‘principle’ against nuclear and thrown away the seat more convincingly or shown his u-turn for what is was – a cynical attempt to win voters with no intention of seeing his promise through. Hardly the best route to become prime minister. Instead his ‘means well just incompetence’ imagine is in tact.

It is the politics that lost for Labour in Copeland and is why is so far behind in the polls. Jones need to wake up to the fact that had Corbyn been a better communicator of his politics the result in Copeland, and potentially Stoke Central, would have been worse.

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Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell

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Photo: Richard Gardner

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Comments: 9...

  1. On March 2, 2017 at 1:30 pm Richard MacKinnon responded with... #

    “The video Owen Jones published this week was brave”.
    How is Owen Jones Brave?
    He is a journalist. His job, his chosen career, is to sell newspapers.
    To do so, it helps to be contentious and to challenge perceived wisdom. Nobody wants to read about things they already know. No-one is going to keep buying a newspaper if all it tells them is things that they have already worked out for themselves.
    That is how it works. Good journalists challenge. Punters read something that makes them think and then they want to read more of their stuff. They think they are being enlightened.
    And journalists like Owen, he is no different from Polly or Katie or Quentin, they have an ace up their sleeve. They can say to their editors look how many twitter followers I have. I am now a celebrity. I can sell the newspaper. I can increase your circulation.
    And the best tool in the box when salary negotiation time comes around is, “I am a TV celebrity”. That is when they get themselves seriously rich.
    So please, Richard, dont take me for a fool. You and the rest of the vultures that are making a living picking on the carcass of what was the Labour Party fool nobody.

  2. On March 2, 2017 at 2:26 pm Erm... responded with... #

    I totally get what you’re saying about civil nuclear, Trident, etc. They are huge employers and getting rid of them would be totally devastating to those communities – the comparison to what Thatcher did to mining areas when she closed the pits is fair. This alone was enough to make me vote against Corbyn on both leadership elections despite always thinking of myself as being on the left of the party. Corbyn’s view on this sort of thing is exactly what puts him at odds with working class voters. The defence industry next to cars forms more or less all that is left of our manufacturing base on any kind of large scale, so you can’t credibly talk about a manufacturing renaissance whilst showing ANY doubt about supporting those industries.

    However, I’m struggling a bit with how that links to the fracking industry. Fracking does not employ many people and its potential for employing people is severely limited. Given the risks involved with the process (and I’m not talking about more outlandish claims like tap water setting on fire, etc – but for example the fact it is being conducted in areas with pre-existing subsidence issues – fracking companies would get away Scot free if they exasperated these problems and destroyed people’s homes) and the fact that the government has had to simultaneously offer perverse tax incentives to make it viable whilst overturning local democracy just to get what we have off the ground, it seems ridiculous we are even remotely interested in going down this path when the same incentives and effort could instead go into renewables. And the very same areas that fracking in being pursued actually have enormous potential in that area (the Fylde Coast has lots of wind, tides, rivers with big variance that would be perfect for barrages and the area even gets more sunlight than anywhere else in the North-West). It’d employ more people, it’s far less risky and it’s cleaner and greener.

    I’d suggest that in fact the government’s railroading of fracking smacks of the same kind of London-centric ignorance, that Corbyn’s opposition to civil nuclear does. It agitates different kinds of voters sure, but backing fracking would be a huge mistake.

  3. On March 2, 2017 at 3:50 pm Anne responded with... #

    If there is a silver lining from the recent bye elections it is the realisation by everyone that Corbyn and his policies are just not electable. It has brought the situation to a head, as also BREXIT is giving us a leader in waiting – Kier Starmer – he is head and shoulders above anyone else. Would it not be better to make this change asap – giving us 3 years to build a team with workable policies.

  4. On March 2, 2017 at 3:51 pm SARAH BROOKES responded with... #

    Oh how the faux left have fallen. Losing a million voters, losing Scotland with lite touch toryism and austerity.

    There last ditch attempt to destroy the genuine left who really want to look after everyone’s interests and not just the few at the top.

    Stop pretending that slick leadership is a substitute for genuine leadership, and genuine socialism.

    George Orwell describe Progress’s attack on Jeremy in his book “Burmese Days” – Its a dead ringer and brilliant.

    Burmese Days by George Orwell –
    In that novel, there’s an honest hospital doctor called Mr Veraswami. He’s hated by the crooked magistrate, U Po Kyin, because he refuses to go along with the latter’s plans to sell hospital drugs and do various other corrupt things. Eventually, Veramswami’s integrity destroys him. In the last chapter, after his protector John Florey kills himself (a suicide engineered by U Po Kyin), the magistrate sets out to destroy him. Here’s the passage in full:

    “U Po Kyin waited the necessary time, and then struck again, harder than ever. It was barely three months before he had fixed it in the head of every European in Kyauktada that the doctor was an unmitigated scoundrel. No public accusation was ever made against him — U Po Kyin was most careful of that. Even Ellis would have been puzzled to say just what scoundrelism the doctor had been guilty of; but still, it was agreed that he was a scoundrel. By degrees, the general suspicion of him crystallized in a single Burmese phrase — ‘shok de’. Veraswami, it was said, was quite a clever little chap in his way — quite a good doctor for a native — but he was THOROUGHLY shok de. Shok de means, approximately, untrustworthy, and when a ‘native’ official comes to be known as shok de, there is an end of him.”

    Veraswami soon winds up disgraced, and loses his job.

    Substitute ‘Corbyn’ for ‘Veraswami’ and ‘Murdoch’, or ‘Dacre’ for ‘U Po Kyin’, and you pretty much have the situation we’ve been seeing since Corbyn becamne the Labour leader.

    Jeremy Corbyn – thoroughly ‘shok de’.

  5. On March 2, 2017 at 3:59 pm Elizabeth McIntosh responded with... #

    And here is the problem Richard – if Corbyn adopts your approach of supporting outdated, expensive, highly subsidised, dangerous nuclear power and the Trident weapon of mass destruction and expensive carbon emitting fracked gas and privatised security services he will lose a significant proportion of votes to the Greens and Lib Dems. It is clear you want to support the producer interests of nuclear power workers and BAe in Barrow but you need to look at the problematic consequences for Labour voting elsewhere.
    You need to stop pretending all was well under Tony – and you have not supported a Labour leader since. He made plenty of mistakes, not least failing to organise the base of the party. My heart sinks whenever he intervenes on an issue since I know that we will now have lost on it eg BREXIT.
    You need to stop dressing up old policies which offer little hope in reversing the damage. The dynamic of politics is for parties to remain in power until an economic and financial crisis occurs which discredits the eg Major’s Tories with ERM, Brown’s Labour with 2008. Until then we will have false starts and procrastinations. Corbyn and his supporters at least seem to be walking a tightrope to keep the party together while working to try and reshape political discourse and find new alliances and new ways of doing things. The unreconstructed, self important and elitist progress wants to continue its opportunistic practices and accommodation of the policies and agenda of the Tories.

    • On March 2, 2017 at 4:07 pm SARAH BROOKES responded with... #

      Ii agree. If the right of the Party want to win they need to ditch the Washington Consensus.
      Start realising that Government is a sovereign issuer of currency and realise that banks cannot manage the economy by lending all of the time. We need Keynesian intervention.This is the only real difference between Jeremy and Progress. Get your heads together – Jeremy’s PQE could rejuvinate the economy. Listen to directors of the fedaral reserve and world class economists –

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_ikiJt9h6E

      Get more green with energy. And if Progress are are so clever why don’t they help rather than hinder Jeremy? Austerity is economically illiterate – stop it and support him for all our sakes.

  6. On March 2, 2017 at 4:10 pm Alf responded with... #

    The Blairites want Labour to fail. (Like they did in 2010 and 2015.)

  7. On March 2, 2017 at 4:30 pm Stephen Ryan responded with... #

    But the issue from the moderate side of the Labour party is that they still haven’t outlined a programme or a philosophy that takes the best of New Labour but accepts its limitations – so be pro-business but not necessarily believing in the Thatcherite consensus. I mean its not that hard, just read Will Hutton, Larry Elliott and Patrick Collinson in the Guardian and combined it would be a credible pro-business position. And yet, I’m still waiting for that case to be made, in a way that inspires both me and more centrist voters and creates a direction of travels that doesn’t triangulate all ideals away.

  8. On March 3, 2017 at 7:26 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

    Two years ago, if any event were addressed by Owen Jones, then he himself was the event. But, like Peter Tatchell, he has now joined the long list of old left-wing star turns who resent having been made into supporting acts by a man whom they had spent decades assuming was the cloakroom attendant, yet who turns out to have an appeal beyond their wildest dreams.

    Jones’s insistence that anti-Trump events are only “official” if they are approved by him is the mark of a man who has quite taken leave of his senses. When I pointed out that his approach to certain previous military interventions and American Presidents made him an impossible spokesman or figurehead for the opposition to Donald Trump, then he blocked me on Twitter and unfriended me on Facebook, after the manner of a petulant teenager. He is utterly unused to criticism, and he reacts to it very badly indeed.

    His flip-flop on withdrawal from the European Union bespoke a lack of order or clarity in his thinking, and a certain opportunism that was also evident in the decision of his close friend, Clive Lewis, to resign from the Shadow Cabinet in order to vote against the activation of Article 50. Lewis is now the other key figure in the “official” demonstrations against Trump.

    But when Jeremy Corbyn departs the Labour Leadership, at the time of his choosing and not before the middle of the next Parliament at the absolute earliest, then he will be succeeded by one of three people. Those are all from the 2015 intake. In no particular order, they are Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner and Richard Burgon. None of those is Clive Lewis, nor is any of them likely to engage the services of Owen Jones.

    Moreover, two of them are women, but neither of those women is Jess Phillips. Phillips has built a media career on the lie that MPs first elected in 2015, and especially the women among them, have not enjoyed preferment under Corbyn. But they have. So it’s you, Jess. It’s just you. Yet she is now dropping broad enough intends that she intends to stand for the Leadership this year. Well, bring that on, say I. For the sheer hilarity, bring it on.

    Although Phillips does at least have the advantage of being a member of the House of Commons, and indeed a resident of the United Kingdom. David Miliband is neither of those things. The attempted revival of the Transatlantic Torturer declared that Corbyn’s enemies included no sitting MP whom anyone might consider capable of becoming Leader of the Labour Party.

    Who cares what David Miliband says about anything? He was once beaten by Ed Miliband, and that is quite a feat. Big before Twitter and Facebook were, he was such an object of ridicule in his day that he would be drowned in the gales of derision these days. But he is a nasty piece of work. Whereas Phillips, Lewis and Jones are merely laughable.

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